Challenges abound for schools-over-prisons proposal

Jan. 13, 2010, 12:00 a.m.
Gov. Schwarzenegger delivers the State of the State address last Wednesday in Sacramento. (Courtesy Justin Short)
Gov. Schwarzenegger delivers the State of the State address last Wednesday in Sacramento. (Courtesy Justin Short)

Stanford professors say an amendment to the California constitution proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger that would require the state to invest more money in its public universities than its prisons will face many challenges before becoming actual legislation.

The proposal, which has been both lauded and criticized since the governor’s State of the State address last Wednesday, would require California to spend no less than 10 percent of its annual budget on higher education and no more than seven percent on prisons. It would nearly reverse the current situation: 7.5 percent and 11 percent of the budget are allotted to universities and prisons, respectively.

“The priorities have become out of whack over the years,” Schwarzenegger said in his address. “What does it say about a state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns?”

Schwarzenegger’s proposal comes at a time of turmoil within the California higher education system. In December, both the University of California and California State University systems increased tuition by 32 percent, sparking protests and riots across the UC campuses.

UC President Mark Yudof issued a statement hailing Schwarzenegger’s proposal as “a bold and visionary plan.” UC Regents Chairman Russell Gould also called upon the state to end its “chronic disinvestment” in higher education.

Prof. Prudence Carter of Stanford’s School of Education said she supports the proposal, explaining that in California, increasing numbers of young males from disadvantaged backgrounds are dropping out of school and engaging in criminal activity.

“In some districts, less than 50 percent of the students are graduating from high school,” she said. “We have to stop this trend of drop-outs feeding the prison system.”

She hopes that increased support for higher education will have a trickle-down effect, and that the funding will end the tuition hikes that discourage disadvantaged students from attending college.

At the same time, it is questionable whether the California prison system can afford the cuts. California prisons have suffered from overcrowding for years. From 1982 to 2000, the prison population grew by 500 percent. Currently, more than 170,000 prisoners occupy facilities designed for 83,000 people.

In addition, each inmate costs about $50,000 a year to incarcerate, an amount that increases as much as three times for inmates over the age of 55 due to age-related illnesses. By comparison, inmates in other states cost, on average, $32,000 a year.

Enacting the amendment would require California voters to approve some controversial reforms.

“The budget is not just a pie that can be sliced up any way you want,” said political science Prof. Thad Kousser. “You have to make policy choices.”

Among the possible policy changes are plans to reduce the prison population. This proposal has met strong opposition, especially from Republicans who claim that earlier parole and shorter sentences would endanger public safety. For Democrats’ part, many oppose plans to reduce the health care provided for prisoners.

In addition, California voters have consistently voted for tougher sentences over the past two decades, especially since the “Three Strikes” law was passed in 1994, which mandates terms of 25-to-life for defendants convicted of a third felony.

“The trend is almost entirely toward longer sentences,” Kousser said, though he added that a drug decriminalization bill may be on the ballot in November. The bill, which advocates more tolerant laws on recreational drug use, would reduce the number of people who are incarcerated for non-violent crimes.

Even more controversial is Schwarzenegger’s plan to privatize the state’s prisons. This would see private companies taking over the construction of new prisons, and the state hiring private firms to supply the state-run facilities with guards, doctors and other personnel. Kousser foresees strong opposition from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which he called “the most powerful union” in the state, as privatization and other reforms would likely result in pay cuts for their officers.

In order for the education proposal to make it onto the ballot this fall, the governor would need either a two-thirds vote from the state legislature or signatures from 1.3 million voters. Once on the ballot, a simple majority vote from the public would be needed for the amendment to pass.

Carter hopes that come November, the voters of California will support the proposed amendment. “I believe that the investment in education will yield much higher returns to society than investing in prisons,” she said. “I would love to think that voters wouldn’t do anything to undermine education — that they’ll do the right thing.”

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